Healing Trauma: Thawing the Freeze Response
reprinted from The Life Connection, September 2006
By David Gersten, M.D.
For decades, science has been mapping out the biology and psychology of the fight-or-flight response. We react to every day stress the same way our ancestors, millions of years ago, responded to a confrontation with a cave bear. The biology of fight-or-flight is the same whether we are facing a charging mountain lion or an angry boss. Our heart rate increases, blood flows away from skin and the digestive tract and toward muscle (so that we can fight or run).
Peter Levine, Ph.D., author of “Waking the Tiger,” has spent decades researching trauma and has discovered a major, missing piece to the fight-or-flight response. Dr. Levine holds a Ph.D. in medical and biological physics and a Ph.D. in psychology. His first post-graduate training was in the field of biology, during which time he made some brilliant discoveries about the strategies animals in the wild use when under attack, and how those strategies apply to humans.
When under attack, the prey has the instinctual knowledge to fight, flee, or freeze. The freeze response is the main subject of this article. Let’s use an example of a cheetah stalking a herd of impala on a grassy plain in Africa. The cheetah charges the herd, and, as a unit, the impala flee. But the cheetah quickly discovers the weakest or slowest impala in the herd and begins to separate it from the herd. The impala does not have the option of fighting the cheetah, so it runs for its life. Given that the cheetah is the fastest land animal on the planet, the impala is going to lose this race. The impala senses that the cheetah is closing in for the kill. And then suddenly, the speeding impala stops and falls over as if it were dead, as if it has run into a brick wall.
Predators do not attack dead animals, so when the impala suddenly falls over, “dead in its tracks,” the cheetah is confused. So, through the freeze response, the impala has one last chance at survival. If the impala is lucky, the cheetah will treat the impala as if it were dead, and will grab hold of its leg or ankle and drag it back to its den.
Once home, the cheetah might scurry around looking for all of her cubs. While the cheetah is taking care of the home front, the impala can start to come out of the freeze response.
Before we watch the impala run away and escape the jaws of death, let’s back up and examine the freeze response. It is widely held that animals in the moment before death enter a state in which they do not experience pain. It is as if they are having an out-of-body experience, and their spirit has left the soon-to-be-dead body. The science behind this theory is complex, but you can understand why Nature/God would have evolved in a way to spare all living creatures from the final moment of suffering. Through the freeze response the impala either survives or dies painlessly while in a numb, stunned state.
Back at the cheetah’s den, the impala is starting to regain awareness or consciousness as it comes out of the freeze response. First it begins to tremble a little, and its eyes begin to focus again. The trembling becomes quite extreme, with wild shaking. And then it is over. The “freeze” is over and the impala is back in fight-or-flight physiology. It is now capable of running for its life…and winning this round of “predator-prey.”
When human beings are attacked or traumatized in some way, they will first go into fight-or-flight physiology. However, sometimes, like with the impala, there is no escape, except into the oblivion of the freeze response. Children, who are being abused or severely neglected, do not have the choice of fighting or escaping, and so they move into freeze mode. They feel helpless, paralyzed, numb . . . even dead. Because we have an advanced cerebral cortex, we interfere with Nature’s overall survival plan. Our thinking mind gets us stuck in freeze mode, and, unless we spend most of our lives doing deep psycho-spiritual healing work, we will remain in freeze mode.
People who are stuck in freeze mode often feel helpless, numb, dissociated, walled off, and lifeless. They often have difficulty feeling sensations of any kind within parts of their body, or even all of their body. Many of you reading this right now, who are adult survivors of abuse/neglect, are resonating with what you’ve just read. You know the numbness, the dissociation, the feeling that you have not fully lived your life. And you know that these qualities of the freeze response have affected every intimate relationship in your life. Some of you who are still recovering from a serious car accident will recognize qualities of the freeze response, for any trauma at any age can get “frozen in time.”
Getting stuck in freeze mode, during or after a traumatic event is not something that only happens to people who grew up in abusive homes. All kinds of trauma often lead to a freeze response. PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), which can be brought on by a trauma experienced as an adult, is a permanent state of freeze mode. Every time you get into an argument that you can’t resolve, or feel you are in a traumatic situation in which assertive responding is risky, you enter freeze mode. When your angry boss is yelling at you, initially you experience the fight-or-flight response, which then moves into freeze response. You become more and more numb around that person, but the numbness, dissociation, and helpless feelings will spread to the rest of your life. However, you may simply be feeling generally anxious or depressed and not connect those emotions with trauma.
Adult survivors of abuse are frequently re-experiencing trauma as adults, and handle most traumas through the freeze response. For example, a husband may be arguing with his wife. As she appears to “want answers,” her husband experiences the encounter as a trauma, and he becomes numb inside, and often speechless. I have run into this situation countless times with patients, whether it is the male or female partner who is the adult survivor. The more one partner pushes to get the information she wants out of her husband, the more she just wants him to talk, the more speechless he becomes. He is not trying to be evasive. He is frozen inside. There are no words to flow from his lips. He is the impala feeling the cheetah’s breath upon his neck, and he lost the ability to fight or escape a long time ago. I invite all the couples reading this, who experience this kind of communication, to openly discuss what you’ve just read with each other to see if the communication problem is part of a freeze response, rather than one person simply being stubborn.
Dr. Peter Levine developed a therapy model, a strategy for dealing with trauma. He calls his work “Somatic Experiencing.” I find it difficult to remember the term no matter how many times I read it, and so, I have chosen to refer to the work I do, inspired by Levine, as Body Centered Trauma Resolution (BCTR). His approach is one that takes you into the body. This is not about diving into intense emotions (emotional release work), working with your thoughts (cognitive behavioral therapy), or images. However, during this work, strong emotion and mental images often arise.
I do not want to try to map out Dr. Levine’s work, providing superficial ideas and tools for the reader, for you will miss the depth of this work. But, let me give you an idea. One might start a session by allowing your awareness to scan through your body, simply noticing sensations. Notice if an area is warm or cold, numb, tingling, painful, burning, energized, pressured, blocked, and so on. Observe if any particular sensation is pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. Those who have suffered a lot of trauma will often find this exercise difficult at first, and may find that they can’t feel parts of their body at all. They may need professional help to begin the process of re-connecting to bodily sensations.
By spending time simply observing sensations within your body, watching them arise, dissolve, slowly change, and shift around, you begin to re-connect. Sensations are never static and unchanging. Notice how they change. Through this “awareness check” you begin to move out of the dissociation caused by trauma’s freeze response. Dr. Levine began developing his approach, through the body, based on his observations of the animal kingdom and also by working with thousands of survivors of trauma. He discovered that traumatized people feel numb and dissociated inside, and display the same physiological reactions as an animal about to be killed. For many people, trauma leaves them feeling like they have a head that is not connected to their body.
In this work, after observing bodily sensations for awhile (5 minutes or more usually), you identify a sensation that is particularly positive and another area that feels unpleasant. And then you begin a process of “pendulation” (a term coined by Penelope Young-Andrade). Here is the process. You allow your awareness to move, shift, or swing from the pleasant sensation . . . to the unpleasant . . . back to the pleasant area . . . and again back to the unpleasant. You allow your awareness to shift or swing from point to point, or area to area. After awhile the area that felt unpleasant does not feel so unpleasant, and the area that felt the most pleasant has also changed. The idea is that the difference between pleasure and pain begins to transform. Frequently, you will reach the point, where both areas feel about the same. Through “pendulation,” internal, sensory dualities begin to dissolve. And then mental dualities begin to dissolve, soften, and thaw.
In a therapeutic situation, the process of sensory awareness just described often leads to strong memories, emotions, and images. The task, with this work, is to stay out of your head, which is difficult for most of us. We are working at an instinctual, animal level here, and the thinking mind does not serve a useful purpose.
Let me give you a simple example of an everyday trauma that almost all of us would mis-handle. Dr. Levine was walking in an airport when he saw a man on crutches stumble down some stairs. Immediately, people rushed to him, reaching out to help pull him back to his feet. Dr. Levine rushed in, told everyone to back away, and that he had expertise in dealing with that kind of trauma. He sat down next to the man, put his arm around his shoulder, and sat next to him silently. The man was shaken, trembling, a bit spaced-out . . . traumatized. Dr. Levine told him that it was normal to feel shaken up and that he should not try to rush through what he was feeling, and that he would just stay with him as long as was necessary. After awhile the man felt back to normal and went on his way.
Now, what happened there in the airport? When the man fell, he went into a state of trauma, including fight, flight, and freeze. When people rush in to help out, lend a hand, and help someone get back up on their feet too quickly, they inadvertently make it more likely that the man will stay stuck in the freeze response. We can actually add to the trauma unintentionally. We need to be careful to help traumatized people experience what they are feeling and sensing, and not rush them.
Here’s another example. Most of us have been in car accidents. Part of the trauma is that we go into a freeze mode and get stuck there. A few months ago, I was in a very minor fender bender in a parking lot. I had parked, was opening my car door, and another car drove into the slot next to mine and slightly grazed my car door. The other driver and I introduced ourselves and exchanged pertinent information (we acted like civilized people). Twenty minutes later, I had driven to the beach and was about to get out of the car and go for a walk. But I realized that I had entered a freeze state because of the car accident. By going through the normal social graces at the scene of the accident, I ignored the slight trauma I had experienced. I ignored what my mind and body were experiencing, until I noticed that I was feeling a bit numb and dissociated, which is the shocky state you feel after a car accident. I spent about 7 minutes with my eyes closed. First, I became aware of all the varieties of sensations in my body, and then I spent a few minutes “shifting my awareness” between positive and negative sensations. And then I felt totally re-connected on all levels, and proceeded on my walk.
The implications of trauma and getting stuck in freeze mode are profound. Ordinarily, our autonomic nervous system has a healthy balance between the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system is involved in fight-flight-freeze physiology. Adult survivors of trauma and abuse, who are stuck in freeze mode, are also stuck in “sympathetic nervous system overdrive.” They tend to be guarded, slightly suspicious and prepared for the next insult or attack. When you spend decades with your sympathetic nervous system revved up, the negative effect on your body adds up. The parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) becomes suppressed when living in a chronic freeze mode, and the PNS is what is turned on when we need to heal. Rest, yoga, massage, spending time in nature, and work with Body Centered Trauma Resolution re-balance your nervous system so that the PNS becomes more prominent . . . and sympathetic nervous system activity (fight-flight-freeze) diminishes.
Think of all the traumas, big and small, that you have experienced. They put you into various degrees of freeze mode experiences (helpless, numb, detached, dissociated, speechless, paralyzed, and immobilized). For those who grew up abused, every trauma in life just adds to the freeze mode. Recently, I saw a woman, Julie, in my office who is in her sixties. She grew up with a lot of abuse, neglect, and trauma. The only time she ever felt “connected” was when she was in Nature. Otherwise, she felt like something was missing in life . . . and she generally felt numb and helpless. You would never know it if you met her. I spent some time with her doing Body-Centered Trauma Resolution.
I saw Julie a month after our BCTR session, which had lasted about 20 minutes. She was quite animated and told me, “I’ve done some great things. Something has broken loose inside. There have been a lot of people in my life for a long time, like 20 years, who really don’t support me. They are not good for me. I’m not good for them. I called them up and I ended all of these relationships. And next, guess what? I’m seeing my mom soon and I’m going to tell her how I feel about the way she and her boyfriend behave around me, and how negatively they treat me. And then, if they don’t stop their negative behavior, I will leave.” Julie was exuding a new energy, but she had not put two and two together. Her whole life was beginning to flow in a new way. She was becoming unfrozen.
I explained to her that the brief BCTR work that we did moved her out of freeze mode. She was no longer paralyzed, immobilized or numb. She knew how she felt about a lot of things that she had simply been numb to for decades. And she went into taking action, moving from “freeze” into fight-flight. She was taking action based on felt emotion. With her mother, she was now prepared to “fight,” or “tell it like it is” in an assertive way . . . and she is ready for “flight,” or to leave the scene if it remains traumatic in any way. She was rather amazed at how she had transformed in 4 weeks, and she now had the understanding about why she was able to do what she did.
It is important to understand that trauma, physical or emotional, is registered in our bodies at a cellular level. So, spending years in therapy talking about your trauma will do very little good. Talking about trauma is necessary for a person who has never talked about it, and it’s necessary for military vets with PTSD. Military personnel are generally not wired to talk about their feelings, or their pain. In battle, they live and die for their brothers, and it is often seen as a sign of weakness to talk about one’s emotional turmoil. So, for returning war vets who experienced trauma, sharing their story in a group setting is an important first step.
In my practice, I take a very thorough initial history. It takes about 2 hours. I’m always interested in trauma, whether treating someone with a mental/emotional problem or a physical problem. I usually won’t spend more than 2 sessions finding out the details of the trauma. After I know about the trauma, and the existence of the freeze response in those with PTSD, we’ll move into BCTR work, along with specific interactive guided imagery techniques.
Trauma affects all of us, to one degree or another. One only has to go “inside,” become mindful of all the internal sensations, and go through a process of re-connecting. And, I highly recommend that you read, “Waking the Tiger” by Peter Levine and/or picking up his audiocassette series. He has provided the most powerful tools for transforming trauma that I have ever read, work that is helping to heal traumatized children, adult survivors of abuse, as well as the countless people in the world (especially in the Middle East and Africa), who suffer horrendous traumas every day. It is difficult to comprehend the atrocities that human beings can inflict on one another. The need for powerful tools to help all survivors of trauma is great.